Friday, September 25, 2015

To my friends who aren’t social justice activists

To my friends who aren’t social justice activists:

About a year ago my eyes opened to the True America. My entire life I’ve always considered myself a Humanist, always strove not to be racist, homophobic, sexist; to be accepting of all differences. I believed I was doing quite well in this regard. And then my eyes were opened.

The protesting that erupted in Ferguson, MO, and echoed across the country, stirred something deep inside. As I read more, I started to understand generation after generation, hundreds of years, of state-sanctioned discrimination and oppression against black Americans. And I started to grasp the profound way that would completely impact a black person’s reality of America, and the depth of pain expressed in the protesters, that after hundreds of years and the blood lost during the civil rights movement, still Americans of color are disadvantaged to an extraordinary degree in almost every measurable facet of life. I started to realize how silly it was for white people (like me) to suggest that black people “get over slavery,” because it isn’t only about slavery; it is about a system that started with stealing people from their families and their homes, and has continued to keep black people as a group from having equal opportunities. The stories of slavery are personal, and expressed in family stories that traverse slavery, to Jim Crowe laws, to the education-to-prison pipeline, to the cultural appropriation of mocking black people for their culture yet celebrating white people who steal that culture.

And while the scenarios are different, the systemic oppression and discrimination are realities for all people of color in this country.

Weeks later I came into a conversation on Facebook discussing whether racism could go in both directions. The conversation reminded me of my ex-girlfriend Mari, who has a white American mother and an indigenous Guatemalan father. Mari and her siblings lived at different times in predominantly white, and predominantly Latino neighborhoods in Los Angeles. When they lived in the white neighborhood, they were seen as the brown kids. And when they lived in the Latino neighborhood they were seen as the white kids. In both cases they were looked down on and mistreated. Thinking of Mari’s experience I thought, aha, racism can go both ways!

But in this Facebook conversation, the concept of reverse-racism was emphatically rejected. Some of the folks trying to explain why were so frustrated at having to explain for the thousandth time, their comments didn’t make sense to me; plus they were introducing concepts that were unfamiliar to me. One of the things I heard was that “hurt feelings” (of a white person finding themselves among brown or black people who do not like them because of their race) is not comparable to systemic oppression. I got hung up on the term “hurt feelings,” because that seemed to minimize the pain of that experience.

I left that conversation not understanding and feeling frustrated. Over the following weeks and months I started asking the occasional tentative question, and doing more listening than responding. And then, my understanding happened. I can’t recall when, it just did. But when it did, my entire perspective changed. It was like waking up to The Matrix.

As a more clear illustration, I’ll use an example of a white child and a black child. The families of each are living in a neighborhood where the predominant race is not their own, and in both cases the children are ostracized, ridiculed and tormented. To be sure, both children are having horrible experiences.

In the case of the black child, this experience is only the tip of the iceberg. The truth is, in this society, everything is rigged to benefit whites over blacks. Her teachers are more likely to judge this black child as unruly, and less likely to judge her as intellectually curious. Because of generations of economic disparity, statistically speaking this child’s family is not likely to have the financial resources to relocate (just think of compounding interest and how it’s exponentially better to start saving at 25 than to start at 45 even if you contribute at a higher rate; just imagine the societal impacts over the course of hundreds of years). Then as this child becomes an adult, she will have more difficulty securing jobs and getting home loans. Her uncomfortable childhood is simply one small facet of an entire system that oppresses and discriminates against her, her entire life, because her skin is black.

In the case of the white child, this experience with the neighborhood kids is an isolated experience. Her teachers are more likely to treat her fairly. And if not, her parents are more likely to have access to the finances to relocate. And when she grows up, she will enter the adult world that is built in every way to favor whites. Even if she is passed over for a job because of affirmative action policies and her job given to a black woman, she will have far more chances at finding other employment than the young black woman above.

Their unpleasant (possibly even traumatic) childhood experiences are actually entirely different because of context. The white child experiences a difficult childhood; the black child experiences a difficult childhood as just a small part of living in a society that discriminates against her at every turn.

People of any color have the potential to dislike, mistrust, or even hate people of any other color. That is prejudice.

But racism requires not only race-based prejudice, but power. Racism requires the ability to oppress. White people mistreating black people because of the color of their skin are prejudiced and racist, because their mistreatment is a component of, and perpetuation of, an entire system of racial-based oppression and discrimination. Black people mistreating white people are prejudiced but not racist, because their actions are isolated events and do nothing to oppress white people. In fact in this culture, it is impossible for black people to oppress white people.

This same analysis applies to conversations. If a white person says, “black people are thugs,” given the context of systemic racism and oppression in this country, not only are they conveying their racism, they are perpetuating systemic racism and oppression.

If a black person says, “white people are selfish,” there is no context of systemic racism and oppression, so their comment is not racist. Their words in no way perpetuate a system that oppresses white people, because such a system does not exist. Their words express their own individual feelings, and no more.

The balance of power is everything when talking about equality, racism, and bigotry. Black people uttering insults about white people are not racist. Gays and lesbians who utter criticisms against homophobic people are not bigots, and are not “just as bad.” Women uttering insults about men are not sexist; often they are calling out sexism in men.

Criticisms spoken by the oppressor about the oppressed are used to demean and further oppress.

Criticisms spoken by the oppressed about the oppressor are a cry of rage and outrage against the oppressor and the system of oppression. Those words, the words from the oppressed, are words of justifiable anger; they are words of courage; they are the words of someone crying out for equality.

At this point each of us has a choice.

1. We can point the finger at the oppressed and say,

You’re just as bad! You can’t generalize like that! Your words perpetuate hatred, misunderstanding, and division. Furthermore, you have just criticized me and you don’t even know me. You are the bigot here!

2. Or we can say,

I also disagree with oppression and discrimination, and I don’t want to be a part of it. I’m white, and I want to do everything I can to not perpetuate racism. I will call out others on racism. I will support people of color when they speak out against racism, even when their words are angry. I am far more offended at racism than I am at their expressions of anger. If I initially bristled when the oppressed said “white people are…” and felt personally offended, I will acknowledge that my hurt feelings are my problem and my responsibility. I refuse to let my hurt feelings derail me from the actual problem of working against racism. And I will continually strive to eradicate any racist thoughts inside me; I will work hard to make sure that when someone says, “white people are…,” they won’t mean me.